The Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB), with headquarters in Ghent and approximately 1,500 employees, is the key player in the Flemish biotech sector. Co-CEO Johan Cardoen underlines the importance of innovation for keeping our sector robust: "We must create a ‘brain gain’ instead of a ‘brain drain’".
"None of this existed twenty years ago. Today, two thousand people work at this site alone," Johan Cardoen pointed out from VIB headquarters, referring to the Technology Park up the road in Zwijnaarde, by Ghent. It is just one example of the impact and transformation brought about from the knowledge center's two decades of existence. The formation of an inter-university cluster for biotech, which made a direct link to business and industry, was a brilliant development.
The promotion of world-class research that benefits society, and actively promoting this is still part of VIB's mission statement that was formulated in 1996 in a partnership between the major Flemish universities. "Strengthening each other instead of competing with each other was one of the underlying premises", says Johan Cardoen.
The results are clear: VIB currently has eight research centers spread over five Flemish university campuses and directly employees 1.500 people representing 66 nationalities. It is easy to explain why there is such an international group. "All vacancies are recruited for internationally", says Johan Cardoen. This way we don't create a brain drain, with good researchers leaving the country, but instead we create a brain gain through the recruitment of worldwide specialists in very specific areas. This is how we concentrate expert knowledge of the highest level in Flanders."
VIB has set its sights on exploiting that unique knowledge center - beyond the universities - and, for this reason, maintains a link with business and industry. Valuable research that perhaps is not ready for the market is flagged and given the necessary stimulus in an incubation center. This in turn allows VIB to lay the missing link between fundamental research and commercial applications. Johan Cardoen gives an example: "The researcher's language is not always the language of business. If we can finance a specific research project, turning it into a demonstrable working unit in laboratory conditions, then there is a greater chance that pharmaceutical companies will see its potential."
Last year, VIB created four start-ups which are currently seeing an enormous amount of momentum. The VIB biotech spin-offs are good for more than a billion euro from private capital investments in Flanders. But valuing worthwhile research does not always need to be with spin-off companies, acknowledges Johan Cardoen. Just as important are the more than one thousand partnerships with industry, the 250 patents and the 230 million euro of income that VIB achieved by working together with industry.
Together with private investors, such as the Colruyt family and the European Investment Funds (EIF), VIB launched its own investment fund worth 63 million euro: V-Bio Ventures. With its direct access to venture capital, the proximity to the knowledge center and talent, VIB functions as a hub resulting in the entire Flemish biotech cluster now providing 19.000 jobs.
Compared to the social return, the Flemish subsidies, totalling 44 million euro that VIB receives each year, appear overall to be a good investment for the government. In exchange for the subsidies, VIB must be able to demonstrate good credentials, which they are able to do more than adequately. It is not without pride that Johan Cardoen states that VIB ranks second in the famous 'Leiden Ranking' of worldwide biomedical and medical research centers, following the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and ahead of American giants such as Harvard and Stanford. Still, Johan Cardoen is the first to put the ranking into perspective: "The interweaving of research with investors and financial backers is much larger is the United States. Although subsidies and business interests are, for us, truly a major impetus, the American dynamic is still on a different scale. That said, I would like to point out that our failure rate (the chance that a project leads to nothing, ed.) to date is zero."